Higher Education for the 99%

by Alex Kulenovic, PHENOM Organizing Director

These are very interesting and challenging times for public higher education, dominated by scarcity in funding and “solutions” that do not fit the problems. In Massachusetts, we’ve been hit by horrific cuts in the last two recessions. Since 2001 we have lost about 40% of our public funding.

UMass Boston Professor Heike Schotten addresses the Education for the 99% marchers in Boston on November 2, 2011.

Cuts transform campuses

Our campuses are transforming in fundamental ways. All institutions have dramatically raised fees. Many have shed staff or shelved hiring. Due to a bad economy and worse job market, many campuses have seen an incredible surge in enrollment, stretching already scarce teaching and support resources to fit an ever-increasing numbers of students.

Looking for any and all sources of funds, campuses are now desperate to attract more out-of-state students and students who need less financial aid. Federal stimulus funds allowed Massachusetts to defer some of these effects. PHENOM and many others fought hard to apply stimulus funds to higher education. But all observers predicted an inevitable cliff, and in last year’s budget Massachusetts fell off it, with a severe cut of 17%.

Stuck with a new normal?

Ominously, there seems to be an emerging consensus among policymakers that this situation—being starved of resources, passing costs on to students and families, retooling institutions to serve wealthier students—might be unfortunate, but is nevertheless a “new normal.” We are told the money simply isn’t there, and may never be there.

The imaginations even of many advocates are limited to tiny, incremental increases at best. More disturbing is the recent, microscopic, set-aside to experiment with new programs in the hopes that if colleges can just show the public that they can operate as leaner, smarter, and more self-sustaining institutions, they can attract more investment.

Boston Foundation rips community colleges

Meanwhile we had the recent Boston Foundation report about community colleges, which isn’t shy about proposing sweeping changes. It argues that the problem with our community colleges (and probably beyond) is that they have too much autonomy, too much local democracy, and waste too much of their resources on mushy stuff like literature and abstract brainy things like philosophy. They should concentrate more on just cranking out more workers! The Department of Higher Education, they say, should not be an advocate for funding. It needs to focus on running a more efficient edu-factory. The foundation report ignores the simple facts. Campuses aren’t going to have great outcomes when they are starved of resources, staffed by a growing number of exploited part-time workers, and populated by far more students.

Community colleges are going to continue to be the only affordable option for many poor families and are going to continue to have the most diversity: They host the most students of color, the most students with children of their own, the widest range of educational aspirations. Calling for community colleges to transform into vocational schools sends a message that low-income students and students of color should be funneled into lower-paying jobs, while upper-middle-class and non-minority students have the privilege to think creatively, discover who they are, and become holistically-educated human beings.

Occupy reframes the questions

Into this infuriating excuse for a debate, enter Occupy. The “Occupy Wall Street” encampment in New York, and its many offshoots, resonated with anyone who has had the feeling that the game is rigged. Anyone who suspected that our entire economy, our tax code, our law enforcement, and our government have been made to serve the wealthiest few at the expense of the rest of us, must have at least been tempted to join a rally and even sit in a tent for a while.

While it is a movement that has confused some and certainly bypassed our notions of what a campaign is (with clear demands, strategy, and conditions for victory), it nevertheless has a crystal-clear theme and focus: that there are people in the financial sector who have gotten away with—and been rewarded for—the crime of the century.

And OWS has added more breadth and depth to that message. The accusation is finally made that the richest 1% don’t pay their fair share, that large swaths of our government are bought and don’t answer to anyone, and that the workers, the students, the unem-ployed, the sick, the poor, the old, immigrants, women, and people of color are always the ones who are asked to sacrifice, who are mocked as privileged or lazy, who are made to suffer for profit, who go to prison.

The 99% are certainly not united, and are not homogenous, but we are beginning to recognize who we are, where our power comes from, who the 1% are, and what their stranglehold on power has done. Even after the Occupy Boston encampment was raided and removed (the longest running continuous occupation to date) and while most of the camps are gone, the movement continues. It has already had its impact. Inequality is the new national concern. The concept of the 99% and the 1% is out there. While hardly a new concept it has a new dimension and a new understanding. “Class warfare” has long been going on, but we are finally fighting back.

Activist groups are using the same language, adopting a similar analysis, and becoming braver and more confrontational. With the exhausting, exhilarating, but largely unsustainable tactic of permanent occupation behind us, the movement can only become more focused. Solidarity is now less a buzzword and more simply the way we all expect to behave. We may not be united, but we will get there.

A 99% vision for public higher education

In many ways, this is the broader vision we have been waiting for, and in public higher education we must have our own version of that vision. That vision must include bold demands, or no demands at all, but rather convictions that of course institutions of higher learning are a public good.

This vision must have as its goal education that is truly for the 99%. It can no longer be consigned to what the “experts” and “decision makers” want or will pay for. It must be truly affordable, (ultimately free), high quality, and holistic. It must demand from the 1% that they pay a fair and adequate share for the same public goods that made their wealth, or their ancestors’ success, possible in the first place. Beyond education, that includes physical infrastructure and social safety nets.

This vision must include the welfare of all students and workers on our campuses, but also surrounding communities, the state, and beyond. It must harness the exuberance of Occupy in the U.S. and the Arab Spring around the world. It must grapple with the shortcomings of the current system of lobbyists, privileged access, fragmentation. It must leverage grassroots power into a cooperative good will that overwhelms the status quo and leads us in a better direction. It may require more from us—emotionally, physically, financially. It may be uncomfortable and disruptive. But it is our best chance to get out of the rut of the last 40 years and fight for a common future.